University Governance 101 — takeaway lessons from UCT’s big Phakeng mess
The independent report into the governance crisis at the University of Cape Town, released this week, has pulled no punches in assigning blame to individuals — but it is the institution as a whole that has suffered. What can South Africa learn from UCT’s experience?
1 Who leads institutions really matters
There is sometimes an assumption that the identity of the person at the very top of an institution matters little. There are checks and balances to curb the worst excesses of power, goes this thinking, and so many people make up the DNA of large institutions that there’s a limit to how much harm one person can do.
This might be true for certain largely ceremonial roles — like the chancellor of a university — but it clearly is not valid for many others. South Africa learnt this the hard way through the presidency of Jacob Zuma, and UCT learnt this the hard way through the vice-chancellorship of Mamokgethi Phakeng.
This is made clear by the independent report into the governance crisis at UCT released this week. The report lists no fewer than nine individuals critical to the functioning of UCT — deputy vice-chancellors, executive directors and top administrators — who left the university as a more or less direct result of their treatment at the hands of the leadership duo of Phakeng and the UCT Council chair, Babalwa Ngonyama.
Elsewhere the report details other significant resignations with the same cause, including of committed UCT Council members.
Those who remained, the investigating panel found, were generally too cowed by Phakeng to speak out. The total administrative costs of this malaise are yet to be fully tallied, but the negative effects on staff morale across the university are undisputed. The reputational blows to UCT have been equally severe.
2 Be careful who you hire
The report singles out former UCT council chair Sipho Pityana for special criticism for his role in ushering Phakeng into power despite knowing of her chequered reputation both at UCT and her previous places of employment.
“Pityana and the Selection Committee were aware that there were serious concerns about her leadership. Not only was her unprofessional behaviour evident, but [former VC Max] Price had cautioned Pityana against appointing her,” the report found. It also expressed something close to disbelief at how little Pityana and his council did to “discipline the VC or terminate her contract”.
Pityana’s decision would turn out to be a remarkably expensive one for UCT. In eventually ridding itself of Phakeng, it had to pay her a golden handshake of R12-million, while legal bills and the costs of related early contract terminations have run to additional millions — particularly problematic for an institution partly funded with public money.
The fact that Phakeng has been able to walk away with millions is understandably grating to those whose careers and mental health she dented through what the report bluntly calls “abuse”. But today, UCT insiders still defend the Phakeng payout as value for money compared to the damage that could have been done through a lengthy legal battle to dislodge her. Moral of the story: be careful who you hire, because it’s a lot easier to hire than to fire.
3 Make sure there are clear avenues to hold those in power accountable
The report suggests that this was one of the major problems of Phakeng’s tenure: there was simply no clear way to hold the VC accountable. It records that Phakeng thought being asked to justify her personal expenses “amounted to bullying”, viewed negative features of her performance appraisal as “gaslighting”, and was “dismissive of attempts to performance-manage her and rejected the criticism of her behaviour”.
One of the only meaningful attempts to hold Phakeng to account was undertaken by the former UCT ombud, Zetu Makamandela-Mguqulwa, who went public with the volume of bullying complaints against Phakeng and ended up losing her job. It was an incident which revealed, apart from anything else, the toothlessness of the ombud role.
Daily Maverick has also heard accounts from multiple former UCT staff members of how their attempts to pursue grievances against Phakeng or seek assistance in managing their relationships with her came to nought — due to Phakeng’s administrative capture and a general reluctance to take on Phakeng. These staff members understandably feel deeply let down by the institution as a whole.
4 A bad work environment is genuinely scarring
One of the clearest takeaways of the report is that those who tussled with Phakeng paid a serious psychological price. It acknowledges that one of the effects of the UCT governance crisis was “emotional trauma to many individuals”.
There are multiple accounts in the report of Phakeng reducing colleagues to tears and severely negatively affecting colleagues’ mental health. There are 17 references to Phakeng “humiliating” colleagues.
However melodramatic this may sound, multiple former colleagues have told Daily Maverick of the difficulties they experienced in returning to full mental health after their experiences in the UCT administration.
To quote one: “The problem for those that suffered the trauma is that healing is a hard and long journey.”
5 Anger lingers
Episodes like these, lasting years in an institution’s history, cannot easily be moved past. UCT should not be surprised to find itself the target of further legal action on the part of aggrieved former staff members after the publication of the report.
The report has recommended that UCT make apologies to no fewer than 46 individuals in total for their experiences at the hands of the former VC, that UCT compensate various individuals for legal action and that UCT “must make available, at its expense, a counselling service for any complainant who experienced bullying by the erstwhile VC”.
Some will say this is necessary but insufficient.
A further headache awaits, meanwhile, in terms of individuals who have been strongly criticised by the report for their actions in the period under consideration who nonetheless remain in positions at UCT: notably, Council member Pheladi Gwangwa and Deputy Vice-Chancellor Elelwani Ramugondo.
The report found that Ramugondo probably lied to both the investigating panel and at least one other committee regarding an offensive tweet she posted about a colleague. It found that Ramugondo should have recused herself in a number of Council meetings but did not do so, defended the use of “offensive and racially loaded language to stigmatise [opponents]” in Council meetings, and consistently voted against the motion to establish the investigating panel “on the baseless ground that it was symptomatic of a culture of institutionalised racism”.
There will be many eyes trained on UCT to see how it deals with this — and what other steps it can take to draw a firm line under the Phakeng era while acknowledging the serious harm that has been caused. DM